Housewives' choice? Not us

This year, audiences for Capital FM - the first commercial music station in the country - fell to an all-time low. The new managing director has a rescue plan: he wants to leave the school-run mums to themselves. Vincent Graff reports
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"The old game in radio when you were the only commercial station in town was to please everybody some of the time," says Keith Pringle, the new managing director of Capital FM. He has a point. When Capital Radio - the brainchild, believe it or not, of a dentist from Weybridge called Barclay Barclay-White - began 30 years ago as the first commercial music station in the country, it was an extraordinary mix.

Launched on 16 October 1973, with the National Anthem and a message from Richard Attenborough, the station featured Michael Aspel, Kenny Everett, Gerald Harper ("Welcome to the Sunday Best"), Dave Cash, Monty Modlyn and Tommy Vance. In the early days, alongside The Carpenters and Kiki Dee, there was Mozart; as well as a children's show and current-affairs phone-ins, there was "Anna and the Doc" discussing listeners' sexual problems.

Even Peggy Mount got a look-in: she starred in a daily drama serial.

You won't find much drama on Pringle's station. Except, perhaps, in the boardroom, where disappointing audience figures - the poorest in the station's history, a share of 8.1 per cent of total listening, though they have since partially recovered - recently led to the departure of the network managing director, Andria Vidler. She had been in the job for less than three years. Falling audiences - plus, of course, the advertising recession - have taken their toll on the bottom line. Last week, the London station's parent company announced that its revenues this year will be 4 per cent down on the previous 12 months.

Londoners now have the choice of nine commercial stations on FM. These are tough times for the first-born. Though it remains the most listened-to station in the city, it has everything to lose - and, as Vidler's departure illustrates, it has sometimes looked like it has been doing its best to do just that.

Pringle has been brought in to turn the station round, and he knows that. He concedes that chief rivals Kiss FM and Heart 102.6 have "taken certain chunks of our posterior". Last week, he unveiled a new schedule. Under Vidler, it had been targeted - rather vaguely it seemed- at the 15-44 age range. Pringle's aim is to ignore listeners on the periphery, and instead to "super-serve" the 25-34 range. He hopes that by doing so, he will still drag in older and younger listeners; but the former strategy - aiming specific programmes and records at extremes of the spectrum - turned off his core listeners, he believes.

The theory is that a 40-year-old housewife will listen to a station aimed at a 25-year-old office worker, but the office worker won't tune in to Radio Housewife.

Like his two rivals, he is aiming his programming at women. Again, research suggests that men will take to a station aimed at females but women will not listen to a male-orientated station. "We've got to do a step change," admits Pringle.

Squeezed from above and below - Kiss is targeted at females between 20 and 29, and Heart at women aged 30-39 - Capital needs to plot its course very carefully. "If we try to aim at a very broad 'Let's please 15-to-44-year-olds' we'll just get lots of holes shot in us," he says.

"We need to focus in on the centre of mainstream taste and mainstream culture. So the radio station shouldn't be about mums with 12-year-old kids in the car, it's got to be a radio station that is clearly for an active, mainstream adult who goes out there and knows how to have a good time.

"I think that there clearly has to be a point where the radio station turns round and goes back up again - and I think we've hit that point."

The mood in the City suggests he may be right. Lorna Tilbian, media analyst at Numis Securities, says: "There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Capital FM - it is just that new people have entered its market. They have had to refine their play list, but they have done that."

What Capital does have is a perception problem. It is seen as a pure chart music station at a time when record sales are dominated by manufactured boy bands, Pop Idol runners-up and hardcore dance music. It is seen as distant from its listeners, and a little false.

"Gareth Gates has an appalling image if you're over the age of 25. Just by saying the words 'Gareth Gates' on the radio sometimes gives you a [bad] image," says Pringle. "We have to be careful that we don't become part of the marketing machinery of manufactured music."

He has also decreed that there will be fewer jingles - "bigness and glitz and lots of big American voices and jingles all over the place, doesn't hit true as an authentic communication these days" - and banned his DJs from announcing that Capital is "London's number one hit music station", a phrase that at one time popped up dozens of times a day.

"One of my catchphrases is: 'DJs don't say slogans.' It's been very tempting over the past few years to do big positioning-statements on your own product. But now we don't want to say we're number one [in London] that loudly, because that's not important in our relationship with our listener: he or she doesn't listen to us because we're number one but because we are their number one. We don't have to keep overselling."

There is one other problem facing Capital, and it is a big one: the Chris Tarrant crisis. Tarrant has been presenting the breakfast show since 1990. Though not as popular as he once was - he had 2.25 million listeners in 1995, and has 1.65 million now - he is still an incredible draw. Only Radio 4's Today programme does better at breakfast. Capital is hugely reliant on him.

It has been suggested in the City that Tarrant alone is responsible for 15 per cent of the station's profit. And he knows it. He has negotiated an annual pay package that he once described to me as around the "£1m-plus" mark. This is for a 38-week year, presenting a three-hour show every weekday. This equates to a pay rate of around £1,800 an hour.

Every time Tarrant's contract has come up for renewal, he has pointed out how hard he works (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Tarrant on TV) and made noises that he wants to leave. His pay has risen; so has his holiday entitlement. But this time, it is almost certain that the station will lose him.

Pringle refuses to say anything on the subject, beyond the fact that an announcement will be made in November.

But his tone of voice suggests that Capital is preparing to bid goodbye to its biggest star.

Pringle, while proclaiming that Tarrant is "completely on top form", lets slip that Capital has "done a lot of work making Chris sound slightly updated and refreshed". Though he makes sure he mentions that "Chris sounds just fantastic at the moment", he also finds time to point to the most recent set of audience figures for the breakfast show, which show a rise on the preceding quarter. Tarrant was absent for eight of the 12 weeks in question. "When he isn't around, the station doesn't fall to pieces," Pringle says.

He adds: "The show delivers - and the personality is the cream on top."